December 7th, 1941: As Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “a date that will live in infamy.” In America, December 7th is remembered as Pearl Harbor day, but there were many more attacks all over the world that day than just the naval base in Oahu, Hawaii. Over a span of 7 hours, the Japanese military coordinated a series of bombing and strafing runs against US and British interests in the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Malaya and Singapore.
It’s perhaps easiest to imagine the Japanese emperor, Hirohito, as Michael Corleone standing on the church altar denying Satan and all his works, while his henchmen and lieutenants carryout murder after murder, settling family business one attack at a time. In this example, the assault of Pearl Harbor would be nothing more than the Moe Green hit, a shot through the eye, a message.
The Japanese lost 29 aircraft and 5 two-man submarines during the attack. 90% of the submariners died making up almost 14% of the Japanese servicemen killed or wounded. The sole surviving submariner, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured on an Oahu beach and spent the duration of the war as a prisoner. Our story begins with two of those lost 29 aircraft.
The two aircraft were Mitsubishi A6M fighter jets known as Zeroes, or in Japanese , the “Reisen”. The planes were called Zeroes because zero was the last digit of the Imperial year (2600) they were introduced into the Imperial Navy, and not because of the Rising Sun with white border that adorned most of their wings and cockpit.
These two particular planes had two particular pilots: Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi and Airman 2nd Class Saburo Ishii. Nishikaichi was flying escort for a group of bombers from the aircraft carrier, Shokaku, during the second wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor. After a successful run, on their return flight to Shokaku, he and his compatriots were drawn into an air battle with 9 American fighters. The superior maneuverability of the Zero fighter ensured that the sortie was one-sided.
Despite their victory, Nishikaichi and Ishii both came out of the battle with damaged planes. They both quickly fell behind from the rest of their squadrons. A quick survey of the damage led Nishikaichi to believe that his fuel tank had been hit and he did not have enough of a reserve to reach Shokaku or his own carrier, Hiryu. Prior to the invasion, the pilots had been instructed that any crippled aircraft should attempt to make it to the northern shore of the westernmost Hawaiian island, Nii’hau, for extraction by submarine.
Imperial intelligence had believed the island of Nii’hau to be uninhabited but the first aerial pass by Nishikaichi and Ishii proved that their intelligence was outdated if not completely incorrect. In fact, Nii’hau had been occupied and owned outright by the Robinson family since 1864, when it had been purchased for $10,000 in gold from King Kamehameha the Fifth. The pilots began to argue about the correct course of action as they circled the island. Nishikaichi was in favor of landing and making their way to the exfiltration point. Ishii favored a more drastic approach. He broke off from Nishikaichi and informed his superiors back on Shokaku that he would attempt to fly back to Oahu and crash himself into a suitable military target.
Inexplicably, or perhaps very ‘splicably given the Imperial Japanese fondness for suicide, Ishii’s plane banked steeply upwards away from Nii’hau and then plummeted even faster directly into the sea. Exeunt Saburo Ishii. And then there was one. Low on gas and high on hope, Nishikaichi circled the island ever lower looking for an appropriate spot to land. Unlike Oahu, the island of Nii’hau had actually been prepared for a possible attack. Harvard educated, Aylmer Robinson had insured that areas of the island suitable for aerial landings were plowed under or heavily strewn with rock piles.
Nearing desperation, Nishikaichi made due with the best he could find and attempted to land in a field near an adjacent house on the outskirts of the Puu’wai village. Strapped in and bracing for a hard landing, the Zeroes’ landing gear caught on a wire fence, tipping the plane forward and driving the nose of the Zero into the ground. The impact knocked Nishikaichi unconscious.
First on the scene was Hawaiian native and decade long Nii’hau resident, Hawila “Howard” Kaleohano. Hawila had been born on the big island of Hawaii. At 18, he visited his sister on Nii’hau and stayed on the island, marrying into the closed off society. Nishikaichi landed in the pasture next to Kaleohano’s house. The burly Hawaiian helped free the downed pilot from the wreckage while also relieving him of his side arm and a stack of official papers with Japanese writing.
Despite their role as a major Maguffin in the story, the contents of the papers have been lost to history. They most likely contained troop movements, rendezvous points, radio codes, basically information that would be super important in the short-term and largely worthless weeks, months, or years later. The only two-way radio on Nii’hau was down for repair at the time, and so, the residents of the 18 mile by 6 mile island had no idea what was going on at the naval base in Oahu.
The two men spoke briefly to each other in English. Nishikaichi inquired if Kaleohano was Japanese in broken English.
“I am Hawaiian,” Kaleohano replied.
And that was the end of their conversation. Kaleohano welcomed the injured and currently unarmed pilot into his home, where Kaleohano’s wife served the man breakfast. While the pilot ate, Kaleohano sent for and awaited the arrival of Ishimatsu Shintani, a 60-year-old beekeeper, who had emigrated to America at 19. The Japanese-born Shintani was considered an Issei. The only other two Nii’hauans of Japanese dissent were Nisei meaning they were 2nd generation immigrants, 1st generation Americans. Due to the laws of the time, Issei could not become US Citizens.
Shintani was not enthused by Kaleohano’s request to translate for the downed pilot, but he came. After a few quick interactions in Japanese between the beekeeper and the pilot, Shintani’s face paled and he left post haste. He offered very little in the way of explanation other than a desire to be left out of the entire affair. After his failure with Shintani, Howard reached out to the island’s remaining Japanese speaking population: the Haradas. Yoshio and Irene Harada were Hawaiian born and therefore US Citizens by rights. Despite this tie to the land, Yoshio had three brothers in Japan. It is believed that in their conversations Nishikaichi, 16 years Yoshio Harada’s junior, played upon Harada’s nationalism as well as his feelings for his brothers. To Harada, Nishikaichi may have appeared to be just a scared, 22 year old kid, far from home and afraid.
Nishikaichi revealed to the Haradas that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor earlier that day and that the Emperor would surely win the war as he had won several other skirmishes in the Pacific in the preceding years. The Haradas in turn kept Nishikaichi’s confidence regarding the battles fought in and over Oahu. The young pilot desperately wanted his papers and his pistol back. Yoshio found himself torn between his own values and the fear that his fellow Nii’hauans saw him as more Japanese than Hawaiian. He believed that he would be judged as at fault for the attacks on Pearl Harbor as any pilot or submariner.
With the truth of the pilot’s position held from the rest of the Hawaiians, the Haradas and the Kaleohanos accompanied Nishikaichi to a luau held at the neighboring house of John Kelly. The pilot was not treated as a prisoner so much as an unexpected guest. While at the luau, Nishikaichi favored his hosts with a song in Japanese which he accompanied on a borrowed guitar. The mood of the evening changed when the Hawaiians learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor by a battery operated radio.
Questioning of the pilot began anew and this time, Harada revealed to the others the nature of Nishikaichi’s role in the Imperial attacks on Oahu. The community members decided to keep Nishikaichi under loose guard at John Kelly’s house until the owner of the island,Aylmer Robinson made his weekly visit to Nii’hau from Kauai, the next day, December 8th, 1941. Unfortunately, for all involved, no rescue would be coming via the sea. Neither Aylmer Robinson nor the rescue submarine, I-74, would be reaching the island anytime soon.
The US Navy had restricted all private sea traffic between islands immediately following the assault on Pearl Harbor.As the days wore on, with no visit from the island’s owner. The luau host and erstwhile jail-keeper, John Kelly, was getting tired of having the Japanese Pilot in his home. Yoshio Harada had been acting as Paymaster for the island since the September 1941 death of the former Island superintendent, John Rennie. Given the social status the position afforded Harada and the fact that he was one of three people on the island who could speak with the prisoner inclined all parties involved to sign off on Nishikaichi being more permanently lodged at the Harada home, albeit still under guard.
Throughout his time on the island, Nishikaichi stole moments alone with Yoshio and to some extent, Irene Harada. Much like a young lover, the downed pilot would seize on moments when his guard changed, used the rest room or were otherwise occupied, to chip away at Yoshio’s sense of self and self-identity. The Nisei believed the pilot, who he may have seen as a little brother figure, when Nishikaichi told him about how poor the US’s defense had been at Oahu, and how easily routed their jet fighters had been by the superior Japanese craft. Slowly, Nishikaichi pulled Harada over to his side. With the alliance sealed, the three Japanese reached out to enlist their only other countryman on the island, the old beekeeper, Shintani.
It’s unknown what was said to the old man when he visited the Harada home on Thursday, December 11, but on Friday, December 12th, the elderly Shintani presented himself at Hawila Kaleohano’s house to request the papers that the Hawaiian had seized from the crashed pilot. He offered Kaleohano two hundred dollars for the papers. Kaleohano refused. Shintani plead with the Hawaiian. He was afraid for his life. Nishikaichi had threatened to kill the old man if he could not secure his lost papers. Hawila again refused and suggested perhaps the man should hide from the pilot because he wouldn’t be returning his papers. Shintani did just that and rode out the rest of this story in hiding.
Shintani’s failure and Kaleohano’s stubbornness left the Harada-Nishikaichi connection with few options. In the Japanese tradition of the time, Nishikaichi gave up on rescue and resolved himself to seeking a death with honor. While the guards watched Nishikaichi, Harada stole away to the Robinson family’s house, which was locked and empty awaiting Aylmer Robinson (much like the rest of the island.) As paymaster, Harada had a key to the Robinson homestead; a key that he used to enter the home and steal a shotgun and a pistol.
Harada hid the weapons away in a honey warehouse to which he also had the key. That much history can agree on. From here there are two stories. One implicates Harada’s wife, and one does not. You can guess which one, Irene Harada presents as the truth.
By Friday night, the Niihauan guard on Nishikaichi had fallen to one. Outnumbered, the guard was easily overpowered by Nishikaichi and Yoshio Harada. While the two men subdued the lone guard Irene Harada played loud music to cover the sounds of their kerfuffle.
Through Harada’s interpreting Nishikaichi expressed that he needed to go to the bathroom. On Niihau in 1941, this was accomplished by visiting the outhouse. The guard and Harada accompanied the prisoner to the freestanding restroom. At this point, Harada explained he had some sort of business to attend to at the honey warehouse and was accompanied by the guard and Nishikaichi. Upon reaching, the warehouse, Harada produced the stolen and now loaded weapons and the two Japanese locked the guard in the warehouse.
Regardless of whose story you choose to believe, we are now back on the linear path of the accepted history, “What Happened on Niihau Island the Week of Pearl Harbor, December 1941, (which I’ll admit is a terrible title.)” The now armed and escaped Japanese had one objective, to reclaim the papers taken by Hawila Kaleohano. Coincidentally, the wife of the guard who Harada and Nishikaichi locked in the honey warehouse, passed by them in a horse drawn wagon. The two Japanese wagon-jacked the guard’s wife and forced her to drive to Kaleohano’s house.
When they reached the house, H&N allowed the guard’s wife to flee on horseback, keeping the wagon. Unfortunately, Kaleohano was not at home. The two men then went to the nearby wreckage of Nishikaichi’s plane. The plane was under guard by a 16-year-old Niihauan boy. He was easily overpowered by H&N. At the wreckage, Nishikaichi attempted to work the plane’s radio but due to the language barrier between the 16 year old guard and the Japanese pilot it is unknown to what end Nishikaichi was trying to use the radio.
Harada and Nishikaichi forced the young boy to go with them back to Hawila Kaleohano’s house. The trio returned in time to see Kaleohano sneaking out of his outhouse. Yoshio Harada aimed the shotgun at the fleeing Hawaiian. The Nisei pulled the trigger and missed. Kaleohano did not wait around to give the men another shot. He tore off across the island on foot.The Hawaiian raced back to Pu’uwai village to warn the rest of the town of Nishikaichi’s escape and Harada’s betrayal.
Kaleohano borrowed a horse in town and set out for Mount Painau to build a signal fire on the island’s highest point. Before heading to the mount, Kaleohano swung back to his house to secure the pilot’s papers. After securing the papers, Hawila took them to his mother-in-law’s house and left them in her charge for safekeeping. While Kaleohano locked up the papers, the subdued guard freed himself from the honey warehouse and returned to Pu’uwai village to back up Hawila’s story about Nishikaichi and Harada. Upon the second telling of the Haradas’ betrayal the villagers spread out across the island, joining Shintani in hiding from the Japanese sympathizers.
Upon arrival at Mount Painau, Hawila Kaleohano found that a signal fire had already been lit. Unwilling to trust solely in the signal fire, Kaleohano gathered up five other men and set off rowing a lifeboat to Kauai. The Niihauans launched from Kii landing. A beach near the site of their luau earlier in the week. They began their ten-hour row into the wind shortly after midnight on Saturday, December 13th, 1941. While everyone else scattered, Nishikaichi and Harada marched their lone prisoner down the streets of Pu’uwai village calling for the people to come out of their homes and surrender themselves. Only one man answered their call, Kaahakila Kalimahuluhulu. Seeing that they were bullet rich and prisoner-poor, the two Japanese marched their captives back to the crash site near Kaleohano’s house.
Under Nishikaichi’s direction, Kalimahuluhulu and his fellow prisoner, the 16-year-old boy, helped the treasonous pair remove the 7.7mm machine guns from the downed Zero. The armaments and ammunition were carried to and stored on the now-horseless horse-drawn carriage that Nishikaichi and Harada had jacked from the guard’s wife. While the prisoners loaded the weapons onto the wagon, Nishikaichi and Harada attempted to set the plane’s remains on fire. The blaze didn’t spread past the cockpit.
The two men grew confident in their ability to manage the escalating situation. The islanders lack of opposition to their gun-toting shenanigans only reinforced Nishikaichi’s promises that the Japanese Empire would steamroll the American opposition in the near future. Harada became so emboldened that he released his prisoner, Kalimahuluhulu, with instructions that he should stop by the Harada homestead and inform Irene that her husband would not be coming home that night. Nishikaichi and Harada then released the 16 year old boy, while they tossed Kaleohano’s house looking for the secret papers.
After fruitlessly searching Kaleohano’s house for the missing papers, Kaleohano and Nishikaichi set their second fire of the evening; this time with much better results. Kalimahuluhulu did not go to the Harada’s house, he went to the beach where he knew his wife to be hiding. When he arrived, Kalimahuluhulu found his wife along with the Kanaheles, Benehakaka (Ben) and Kealoha (Ella). Ben Kanahele accompanied Kalimahuluhulu back to the wagon to retrieve and hide the airplane’s machine guns. The two Hawaiians accomplished their mission and secured the 7.7mm guns, while H&K were distracted by the house fire at Kaleohano’s.
The two Hawaiians returned to their wives and hid out. The next morning the two couples attempted a second raid under the Japanese’ radar but were caught as they hunted for food. Harada and Nishikaichi sent the two men out to search for Kaleohano while they kept their wives hostage. Kanahele knew that their quarry had already left the island bound for Kauai, the night before, but he made a show of searching for the rogue Hawaiian.
Hawila “Howard” Kaleohano
By this time, the morning of December 13th, tensions were heightening on Kauai as well. Robinson had spotted the signal fires the night before, and picked up on the signals and flares that had been sent up in the nights before the fire, but was kept from travelling to his island and his people by the Navy’s moratorium on sea travel. Aylmer Robinson was completely shocked to receive a phone call in Waimea from Kaleohano, whom he believed to still be on the island. Using the Hawaiian’s reports, Robinson returned to the Kauai Naval Command and was finally able to sway the Navy to convene a trip to Nii’hau. Robinson, Kaleohano, the other five men who had rowed with him, and a group of officers and seamen arrived on Nii’hau on December 14th, a full week after Pearl Harbor, and six days from Robinson’s intended trip to the island.
Back on the island, December 13th, Kanahele worried about his wife and grew tired of pretending to look for Kaleohano. He returned to Nishikaichi and Harada. The bravado and smiles were gone. The men were growing tired and desperate. With the shotguun in his hands, and the pistol tucked into his boot, Nishikaichi began issuing threats. Through Harada, Nishikaichi informed Kanahele that all the people of Pu’uwai village would be executed if he did not produce Kaleohano. Speaking Hawaiian, Kanahele asked Harada to take the pistol off Nishikaichi.
At that moment, Harada made his choice. He refused Kanahele’s request and instead told Nishikaichi to pass him the shotgun. When, Nishikaichi began the exchange, Kanahele’s six foot frame shot forward and grappled with the smaller Japanese man. Ben’s wife, Ella, immediately joined the scrum but was pulled away by Harada. During their wrestling, Nishikaichi got a hold of his pistol and fired three shots into Kanahele. With the adrenaline from the shots and the wrestling coursing through his veins, Kanahele picked up his opponent and smashed his head against a nearby wall.
Breaking away from Harada, Ella Kanahele grabbed a rock and went upside the head of the fallen Nishikaichi. Her thrice-shot husband, Ben, used his belt knife to finish the downed pilot by slitting his throat. Seeing his partner put past in such a manner, Harada turned the shotgun on himself. Ella ran for help, taking the shotgun and pistol with her. She dropped them along the way. The shotgun was found five years later, the pistol and one of the 7.7mm guns were never recovered.
Kanahele was taken back to Waimea to recover in their hospital when the Navy arrived on December 14th. Kanahele was awarded the Medal of Merit and a Purple Heart by the U.S. Government. His wife’s assistance in the final fight was never officially recognized. Shintani was sent to an internment camp, where he was held throughout the remainder of World War II. Post-war, he returned to his family on Nii’hau and became a US Citizen in 1960. Irene Harada spent 31 months in US Custody before being released. No longer welcome on Nii’hau, the personal domain of the Robinson family, she moved to the island of Kaua’i.
When all the commotion died down, the people of Nii’hau returned to their quiet island ways. The island still exists today much like it did in the days following Pearl Harbor. These days, helicopters can reach Nii’hau much faster than boats. The Robinson family still holds ownership of the island and controls who comes and goes. The population is believed to be around 150.
In the intervening years, the Nii’hau Incident has slowly faded from public memory. It would probably make a fascinating film, but the names would be too hard to remember for the average American moviegoer. Perhaps the event’s greatest legacy is its presence as a heavily cited footnote in the reasons America so quickly interred over a hundred thousand of its own citizens of Japanese descent in 1942.
An audio reading of this entry along with additional commentary on its relevance to Japanese Interment will be available in February 2017 on Episode 2 of the “White History Month” Podcast.